VINTAGE GEMS Tom AndersonNWR Issue 98
In the aquarium of the Great Zoo,
swims the Caribbean.
and enigmatic animal
has a crystal crescent,
a blue back, a green tail,
a belly of dense coral,
grey fins of cyclone speed.
In the aquarium, this inscription:
Beware: it bites.
Nicholas Guillen, 1967
Our taxi rattles on, its open windows allowing hair and skin to absorb humid air, anticipation and pollution. A field of sunflowers passes by, all over twelve feet, all beginning to wilt. At least it’s not just us looking tired, then. Workers labour home on poorly oiled bikes; one stopping to stare back at us – the pale faces bound for the centre of their universe. The ‘Capitol’ dome and Downtown roll back and forth across our horizon, slowly swelling in size as fumes thicken and driving pace slows. It seems greatness lies, like it has for decades now, just a few roads ahead.
Don’t call my name don’t call my name... FERNANDO
, bleats Lady Gaga from the taxi’s stereo – a dancing panel of blue and white LDC displays that are probably worth more than the car itself. A bass-box bounces us from underneath, forcing each tone of this previously innocuous pop song upon us. Alejandro-Alejandro, Ale Ale Alejandro...
go the lyrics. The namesake’s soft ‘j’ sound reminds me, as I prepare for re-entry in to the Havana bubble, of the sad experience which just about summed up the previous visit of a month ago, when in the Fundacion Alejo Carpintier I’d tried to take an interest in Cuban literary heritage with a broken conversation that resulted instead in a demand for cash. ‘Donacion pour le fundacion?’
Alejo’s great work, Explosion in a Cathedral
, would remain an un-translated mystery to me thanks to the greed – no, sorry, the desperation
– of its custodians. (Instead my only significant prose purchase had been a pirate-photocopy imprint of The Old Man and the Sea
– Hemingway seemingly the one English-language voice the island is still keen to promote as somehow representative of its plight.)
City drawing closer, we pause in front of a sign – one of many trying to preserve that moment of idealism, now half a century ago – the inception of this utopia: 51 años en Revolucion y todavia contando.
Fifty-one years in revolution and still going strong.... Is it still a revolution when you’ve had five decades of the same thing, I want to ask, but don’t. Stay off politics with Cuban taxi drivers – unless they start it.
So why this second trip to Cuba in a month? Reasons to come to this country had always struck me as kind of dubious. Since days as an idealistic, punk-loving teenager, I’d wanted to see this symbol of anti-American defiance, but had quickly grown wise enough to feel that simply passing through a land of contradictions as a gawping tourist wouldn’t quite do it. An opportunity to go to Cuba had arisen years ago when a friend wanted to search its southern shores for surf while I was relatively close by in Panama – but I joined him on the second leg of his explorations (Colombia) instead. Asking about Havana back then, I’d been given nothing but reasons not to go. Among them were a perceived lack of authenticity, currency complications that meant you got ripped off the whole way around, unwelcoming hospitality from people who couldn’t get at your money whatever they charged you and the general sense that you were helping prop up a dictator by buying in to stereotypes set up to fund the failing project.
In the end though, capitalist opportunism had thrown up another chance. Mexico’s national carrier, Mexicana, was going bankrupt, and selling off seats on its final flights just as I was planning a trip there. Taking full advantage meant passing a few days in Cuba either side. Supply and demand. The freemarket. They were all conspiring.
And so a double-dip out of the skies above was to be performed. Havana, twice in five weeks – in case the first time wasn’t enough to figure anything out.
There’s a scent that hangs in tropical streets by mid-morning, stagnant water sitting in the lee of cracking curbs. Moss floats across a rain pool that has given up drying. In a carefully maintained group of plazas in the centre of La Habana Viejo the ground is clean, well swept and buildings throb with repainted colour. Music drifts across, as waiters in black ignore oppressive heat to run pastries and coffee to French tourists.
It’s essential, but far from easy, in Cuba to get away from the Habaguanax hotels and complexes for reasons far greater than the experience. Habaguanax is an exercise in state-run tourism – but then again so is almost everything here. The government treats aspects of the country as an industry, and tourism is one of its flagships, so a foreigner from any freemarket nation can act and think as they would at home. But once the tills are cashed up, all profits go to the state; it’s necessary for maintenance of the socialist machine those tourists think they are here to see.
A block east, or a block west, the cracks appear again – still full of colour, but now shabby. Raw meat hangs on wooden stands, behind water-bottle pendulums that deter flies. Empty, dusty shops sell only the basic wares available to the peso-carrying public. Communism operates at the ground level in the most obvious and devastating way: wages. However well a chef makes a meal, however warmly a cashier smiles or a road-sweeper sweeps, they’ll still be taking home the same pay cheque as everyone else.
Cuba’s shop-front façade, and the secrets of its back storeroom, can be seen by walking out of the centre like this – to the peso streets. That window- display appearance of a socialist theme park owes a lot to the peso. The country runs on two parallel but unrelated currencies (sounds like a quantum physics paradox, I know), and pesos, worth next to nothing, are how nationals are remunerated for their efforts. By contrast, the ‘cubano’, or CUC (the Convertible Cuban Peso) is a currency closer to the dollar in character, and it is the latter that is dealt out to foreigners.
CUC transactions are closely monitored by the machine.
Anything you’d ever desire
, rather than need, will be priced in CUC – and a local who buys something in CUC had better have a good explanation for how they came to be carrying the magic notes. This way, two worlds get to exist alongside each other without interacting. It’s an air-lock separating you from the real Cuban psyche. Parallel, unrelated; if it’s one thing it can’t be the other – Schroedinger’s Cat for communist economists.
You’ll get this offer constantly anywhere between the centre and the Vedado – the more modernised sprawl of administrative Havana to the West. Cigars, unlike convertible Cuban pesos, do seem to sneak their way in to local pockets, but again it is a second-rate, irrelevant brand and flavour. The cigars that bring in the foreign cash are meticulously shipped out at first point of contact. These cheap knock-offs are the Castro administration’s interpretation of ‘prole feed’. They can have as much as they want and it won’t make any difference – after Habaguanax and its associates are done creaming off the stuff that matters.
A Crystal Crescent
Arranging a place to stay, the best way to avoid pouring in to this Habaguanax model is to lodge, however temporarily, with a family – in a ‘Casa Particular’ – state-approved homestays, where accepting breakfast for a few extra CUC pesos represents a small window of opportunity for your hosts to cook the books. Casa Miriam on Lealtad, just behind the iconic Malecón, is our choice again, an innocuous doorway in a street where families and friends sit on doorsteps beyond dark. Miriam’s daughter and husband are delighted to offer advice on anything Cubano. Here you can unwind with no offers of weak tobacco, stand on the balcony and feel, fleetingly, like part of the country’s psyche – while behind you fan-wafted curtains offer a return to cooler air, and a break from the sights.
By morning the pavements outside are again bustling with community, and we step out in to the thickening humidity to find a bus route away from the city. Here even the sea air feels stifled – but I’m hoping with a bit of space that ocean can show its energy, perhaps.
Coming on to the central square near the tryst of big hotels, it’s a little stroll south to the buses – past ballet houses that offer shows in two prices, one more than ten times the other depending on the coins you carry. There’s pride in these buildings, though; the sense that something happens here.
Waiting for a bus to Playas del Este, a man strikes up conversation, giving us a peso each so we can board at a Cuban tariff. Not being from Havana, he’s travelled all through the night to get here from Las Tunas.
‘What brings you here?’ I ask.
‘I come to see a doctor. Nine hours on this bus, man.’
‘So why are you waiting now?’
‘I’m going home again.’
He’s had his checkup, and is setting off again immediately – a full day on the cramped and sweaty public transport system, after a full night of the same. No need to enquire what brought him so far to a doctor – a smile seems to indicate it’s not severe, but again his pride is what comes through strongest.
‘Free in Cuba,’ he reminds me. ‘Very good.’
It’s something we take for granted – but here the right of access to medical attention for every member of a country’s population is still something to be celebrated.
This idea – free at the point of use – is a tenet of socialism in many countries, and it’s one thing all of Cuba seems to still have faith in. There are lessons here, though, for a traditional leftie. The communist model, history has shown, tends not to break down over its excesses or injustices as quickly as it does over issues of efficiency. The other things we take for granted – away from free health – products, commodities, gadgets, all work as they do because they have been driven by competition. But the competitive fire here is preserved strictly for sports. Government monopolies, rigid public services, complete nationalisation – these wore away at the Soviet industry’s ability to attract trade, and here the same problem has existed for years. Shoddiness spreads, in the absence of market forces doing what they do best.
Once outside its capital the condition of the country is almost haunting. An underused freeway rolls you away from Havana, eastbound – surrounded by space. Beyond the fort, where once Guevara and Cienfuegos lined up scores of prisoners for summary execution post-revolution, a baseball stadium reminds us again of sport’s role in the national psyche. Leisure time though, is harder to earn. We’re almost alone – and again French voices on our bus are more prominent than local. Through the window, miles of empty, fallow land gradually rise and dip to mask the dark blue ocean to the north. We turn in to a complex of hard-edged, greying and crumbling buildings, pass a check- point and are running through blocks of cracking road, slowly being reclaimed by encroaching tropical grass. Ground hot enough to burn feet, decaying, art-deco hotels and then beaches of white, powdered coral.
Lines of waning waves, fading remnants of a recent tropical storm, slosh against the hot tideline – same size, same frequency as on the shores of Miami, just beyond the horizon. Two men in their early twenties try in vain to fire up a dinghy’s outboard motor, while their girls, unimpressed, sit in the lee of a stumbling palm. A lifeguard keeps his eye on them while chewing a sugary churro – one of the luxuries pesos do afford this far out of the city.
Grey Fins of Cyclone Speed
Late summer, wet season still in control, there are daily storm clouds. The first squall cools the beaches before torrents set in and send us scurrying for the shelter of a corrugated café serving black coffees and ice-creams in the wrapper. Another myth crumbles: they’re selling Coke too.
Palms bowing in respect, tropical winds grow, pulled in off the cooler ocean. Moisture in the air, ground thirsty for the water already fallen, a shoreline walk is bearable. Faces freshened, city dust washed out, we wait with that stretch-faced feeling only the sea can give, by a patch of thick-blade grass. The bus stop is marked by a buckled pole and broken sign. Three teenagers down the street have a ghetto blaster at full volume, and in front of us a woman is jiggling her hips to the infectious reggaton. Her movements are brash and sexual, but like any Cuban we’ve met so far, she’s entirely approachable. Before we ask, she’s donating a peso as the bus rounds the corner, saving us the price in CUC which would be tenfold. We’re sharing the real currency again – although Havana is only an hour away.
Back at Miriam’s for dark, I watch the horizon swallow a purpling sun, as half-naked kids, barefoot in the filthy street below, fight with water pistols. It has become impossible to recall the expectations I’d brought to Havana. The place forces you to believe that the here and now is all there will ever be.
Lunchtime, and we fly out in hours – but not before sipping mojito with a mango salad in the Telégrafo, from where the same taxi has agreed to collect us for a ride back out of the bubble. Mangos picked in season, probably still attached to a tree and drinking tropical rainwater that same morning; every bite lasts nowhere near as long as you’d like it to. You’re paying for something, and paying a lot. This is making it better than its competitor, isn’t it? In theory.
the driver asks.
This time the voice on the strobing stereo is male, and singing in Spanish. A piano accompanies the ululations of the chorus.
What comes to mind, more than anything as we thread our way out, is fragility. This project of Fidel’s, this utopia, is frighteningly fragile. And it has been for fifty years. Far from revolutionary, the country feels like a feeble person in ill health, who has lasted, to their own consternation, for longer than anyone had planned.
That heroic coup, with its bold defiance, agrarian reforms, investment in art and education, is merely the founding myth now. Crippling sanctions, economic trouble – these are more recent in the memory. Dual currencies and a ‘brain drain’ to other wealthier countries. But yet again it is a testament to Cuban spirit that unbridled national pride is still evident amidst such decline.
Tomorrow is the 26th of July – a national holiday to celebrate the Revolution. Rumours abound that Fidel will appear in public to speak. Our journey to the airport, therefore, is via the Plaza de la Revolución, where we stop to stand for the last time in the presence of the spirits of the people who made it happen. Under the greying skies of the early afternoon, tall tropical rain clouds pulsating overhead, we walk to the stretch of grubby diplomatic offices that have taken on a greater significance than they ever deserved when first erected. Here stand those iconic facades on which Che and Cienfuegos have been immortalised in crude metal portraiture – and behind us, a hundred metres away, Jose Marti’s memorial monument points skyward. People seem to forget the still-living Castro played his part in the epic jungle march too.
Not for the first time I am, ironically, reminded of Washinton DC – Marti and Guevara could easily be Lincoln watching over his National Mall. This half- century experiment in rebellion seems unable to escape imitating the country it is forbidden to resemble. Back in central Havana the cityscape is dominated by a copy of the District of Columbia’s Capitol Building – although Cuba’s version is not on a hill and sits in disrepair, most of its rooms empty, and the rest of them used for purposes nobody can quite be sure of.
But at least there are no logos on display – apart from Che’s portrait, perhaps. Commerce has no power here, yet. And at this moment we are the only tourists in sight – a sensation common in Havana’s outskirts. The loneliness adds to the sense of time-warp.
But this is the present – however hard to understand. And that fragility is still in every brick, every cloud, every leaf, every blade of grass. Above the José Marti Monument I can see two groups of black birds – vultures – circling on jets of rising air. Effortlessly they glide, waiting.
As we move away again, and the plaza drops from sight, I ask the taxi driver if he’ll be taking part in the 26th July celebrations tomorrow – a day of rest, when the country is strongly advised not to work.
he replies curtly in Spanish. ‘Yo trabajo mañana.’
I ask why. Come on, it is a national holiday, after all. Everyone loves a day off.
He reaches for the volume dial and a slight respite from the stereo’s power is granted, as he makes sure we hear the answer, unequivocal, friendly, emphatic:
‘No soy communista.’
is the author of three travelogues based around surf culture, including Chasing Dean: Surfing America’s Hurricane States
. He lives in Porthcawl.
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